Living in the age of incivility Part 3 – The Iron Cage that is the school system

The modern school system has, for all intents and purposes, come more and more to resemble and function much like what German sociologist Max Weber called the “Iron Cage” – a bureaucratic structure that traps individuals in a world driven by technological efficiency, rational calculation and control.

Paul W Bennett Globe and Mail, October 2, 2020

I worried most about this third article in my series Living in the age of incivility. I worried about this because I was going to take things personal, talk about a situation that occurred while I was a principal in the Ottawa Catholic School system five years ago.

In a tweet I never put out I wrote this:

In 2015, I was unjustly suspended by a school board I had worked for for 27 years. A disgruntled employee brought a whole host of false accusations against me. I have never written about this. In a time of such incivility, is it now time to expose the injustice of what happened?

Yes, it is time, but how do I make this a useful article? It would be very easy to become the victim in my own story or for the reader to think – maybe these accusations were not false, maybe he got what was coming for him.

If you keep the story as personal, if you hold on to the anger, the message gets lost, the story is blurred, people turn away.

Even a few years ago, I couldn’t write this story. I was too caught up in anger and shame. I have avoided any occasions that involve the OCSB for years now, including, to my shame, the retirement of a good friend, and my own board retirement party. But enough with that now.

What has given me the context for this third article is an opinion piece by Paul W. Bennett in today’s Globe and Mail. He is writing a summary of some of his ideas in his new book – The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools. I don’t have the book yet, but I will be reading this soon.

In his article, he starts out by writing how the pandemic has really exposed the inadequacies of our public school system, a system that has maintained the same structure for well over 100 years.

Beyond this crisis however, the pandemic has exposed a more fundamental problem. It has lost its connection with students, families and the wider community.

Our public schools, initially established as the vanguard of universal, accessible, free education, have lost their way and become largely unresponsive to the public they still claim to serve. Those voicing concerns about early reading, mathematics scores or school closings find the system resistant to change and regularly hit brick walls and glass ceilings, particularly when trying to access the points of decision-making.

What they are very good at is shutting down innovation and smothering dissent.

Now, I enter the personal, but I do it briefly, because I am not the story here.

In 2015, I was the principal of a small urban school in the Ottawa Catholic School Board. We had a great school with wonderful children, mostly new to Canada. Our school had served immigrant communities for decades and this meant going beyond the prescriptive norms to give them the opportunity to thrive in a brand new world.

At the time, we had one employee who worked closely with me who used their position to create tension and strife amongst the staff. I was unaware of this situation until the staff member began to poll staff about their attendance in a board-wide PD day. This is something you just don’t do in a school – the principal can do this, but I would never take a step like this – I trusted the people I worked with.

I did call the employee out on this behaviour, but I did not know at the time it was just one in a series of ‘aggressions’ the staff member had taken out on the rest of the staff.

While generally we could have moved on from this incident we didn’t. The employee went directly to the head of HR for the board, brought in their union representative and left the school when I asked why they were escalating the issue.

This was a time of high tension in the school board. The employee’s union was on work to rule and incidents like this were happening in other schools as well.

Still, nothing really to worry about here. In the ensuing weeks, without my knowledge, the employee with their union rep held a series of meetings with the superintendent of HR and others and in those meetings a long history of my supposed infractions were laid out out. It must have taken hours and hours to come up with this list.

It was fanciful, but it was damming. When the list was complete and the meetings were over, I was called in to hear the whole story. I brought our association rep, a fellow principal. As principals in Ontario, we don’t have a union which means we are exposed and unprotected. Most principals have no idea how precarious their position is.

A meeting that I thought would be a 15-minute conclusion to a strange affair turned into a two-hour grilling that only ended when I had had enough. I told them this was ridiculous and I left.

There is a nine-page summary of the meeting written by my representative. Even now I can’t read it and my hands actually shake as I pull it up again on the computer. I also produced a 22-page document in my defence. I really don’t know if anyone actually looked at it.

As a principal, you get accused of all sorts of stuff. This is part of the job, but you do expect your supervisors to support you and believe in you.

Mine did not. A few weeks after this meeting I was suspended pending an investigation.

I don’t know if an investigation ever took place. Three weeks later on the last day of school before Christmas, I was reinstated with a hastily written disciplinary letter added to my file.

There was no explanation about what their findings were or if they had actually conducted an investigation. To this day I don’t know the results, but apart from the letter, there were no consequences. The employee was relocated and later it turned out that this person had done similar things at another school, but in the earlier case the principal was told to keep quiet. There has never been an explanation or an apology.

This is my story of the Iron Cage. A school board totally out of touch with their staff more than likely doing its utmost to stay clear of a strong union in a time of labour strife. A school board that placed little value on a loyal employee.

There is no question in my mind that the system of centralized power and incompetent managers needs to be reworked. The pandemic has exposed all of this, but I experienced this gross misuse of authority and power over five years ago.

In his article, Paul Bennett calls for a humanizing of the education system. We need to turn away from big schools that dehumanize relationships between educators, children and parents. We also need a system that has some real oversight so that power can no longer be abused by those who want to sanction others who do not follow the script.

One board official once told me I deserved what I got because my views on education were unconventional. With attitudes like this how can we not want to rework our system? How can someone think it is OK to say things like that?

My situation remains unresolved because I never received an explanation and certainly not an apology. I am retired now – writing this while working at a school would certainly lead to grave consequences.

Now I want a better system. Not for me, but for all those who work in schools, for all children and families and their communities. These old institutions need to go and we need to start considering alternatives. As paul Bennett writes:

A new set of priorities is coming to the fore: put students first, democratize school governance, deprogram education ministries and school districts, and listen more to parents and teachers. Design and build smaller schools at the centre of urban neighbourhoods and rural communities. It’s not a matter of turning back the clock, but rather one of regaining control over our schools, rebuilding social capital, and revitalizing local communities.

This is what we really need to do. Humanize education, give power back to parents and communities, get rid of the bureaucracies that do everything in their power to protect what they have.

Education should be about people, it is not about power and institutions. When abuse of power happens so easily with no consequence for the abusers it is time to rework the system.

Living in the age of incivility – Justice, not Charity why WE doesn’t work for our schools

Everything we do these days needs to be seen through the lens of justice. In this second article on living in the age of incivility, I want to focus on the tools we use in our schools to deal with injustice.

One of the main tools for many years has been the WE Foundation. Fortunately, the days of WE dominance seem to be coming to an end. Unfortunately, this is not happening because people, educators finally saw through the mist of corporate charity but because they got caught in a national scandal.

I was always quietly appalled by the spell WE held over our schools. WE was always about making us feel good, making us look like we were doing something to roll back poverty in the Global South. To my mind, that was never the case. WE never questioned the imbalance that exists in the world and they certainly never exposed the incredible role we have played as settlers and exploiters here in Canada and in the Global South.

They were the good story. That is why boards like my own (Ottawa Catholic) were happy to sign up with WE and why they encouraged participation in their extravaganzas for students and even booked them for one of our annual staff conference days (Christian Community Day).

We never questioned their lack of analysis or their unwillingness to talk about the root causes of poverty and injustice in our world. As Catholics with a rooting in social justice, we should have known better, but how many Catholics have ever examined the social justice roots of our faith? In the vast majority of cases, it was more important to make sure our students felt good about themselves. Rarely did educators and administrators take the next step to challenge the roots of injustice, racism, poverty, and inequality that are endemic in our society.

Look at the quote by Pope Francis below – this is what we should be talking about in our schools – it is not about feeling good about yourself, it is all about becoming uncomfortable with your wealth and privilege and recognizing how we have been the designers of an unequal, unjust world.

… the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity. It must be reiterated that “the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others.” To speak properly of our own rights, we need to broaden our perspective and to hear the plea of other peoples and other regions than those of our own country. We need to grow in a solidarity which “would allow all peoples to become the artisans of their destiny,” since “every person is called to self-fulfillment.

– Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 190

We can go beyond this to look at WE as the Canadian exemplar of white saviouism. David Jefferess, a UBC scholar writes about this in his article, WE Charity and the white saviour complex.

White saviourism is not simply a personality trait that critics can attribute to the Kielburgers or voluntourists alone. In his explanation of the “white savior industrial complex,” Teju Cole does not distinguish between genuine humanitarians and self-seeking ones, but focuses on the construction and material causes of global poverty. Cole explains that the white saviour looks at places like Africa and sees only desperation, consequently failing to understand why the misery exists in the first place.

This is an important article and it would be a good one to read to get a sense of how we have been taken in by WE. We have been lazy and we have not wanted to think things through. We don’t really want to examine the roots of poverty, racism, inequality, and injustice. We certainly do want to become uncomfortable.

Corporations have adopted We to acquire a ‘brand halo‘, a way to attach any the company on to the coattails of WE at rallies that focus mainly on intermediate aged school kids. The WE rallies have been a great way to encourage brand loyalty, sell more soap. As Vice writes:

A page of WE’s website, advertising Marc Kielburger as a paid speaker, touts his insights into “purposeful and profitable business strategies.” The page, which has since been updated to remove that language, boasts that Marc can help teach strategies to “inspire brand fanatics to stay loyal to you, your company, and your cause (and) add a halo effect to your product.”

Vice: Justin Trudeau’s Billion-Dollar Scandal Is a Story of Power, Branding, and Charity July 2020

WE has nothing really to do with changing our mindsets. It is a cynical organization that believes the only way to talk about the Global South to students is by putting on a rock show. Bring out the celebrities and we will change the world. After the show, you can go home, feel good and forget about the global imbalance that grows every day. No need to question the status quo, you just got a t-shirt.

Next, incivility in the school system – don’t ever rock the boat.

Living in the age of incivility – the impact on racialized youth in Ottawa

Dempsey’s community programs have been closed to local youth at the whim of an uncaring city

In this series, I am writing about incivility, injustice, and in this case racism in our local community. This article has a lot to do with racism – a word we don’t like using in Canada. But when you enact a policy that negatively impacts young racialized people that is racism and it needs to be called out.

It is hard to write about stories where poor, racialized communities are forgotten in a time where their needs are not seen as important or even relevant.

The story. In the east end of the city, a community rink was converted into a homeless men’s shelter at the height of the pandemic. As parents and community members began to organize protest against the usurping of their place for hockey and pickleball, the City of Ottawa Housing Department looked for a new location.

They fixed on Dempsey Community Centre.

Dempsey Community Centre in the heart of social housing in the near-by Alta Vista neighbourhood was chosen as a replacement. You can read about this here in the only article written about all this in Ottawa. The article makes no comment, no editorial, no judgment on the move. The article misses the important fact that local families were not consulted even though they had signed their kids up for recreational programs with Christie Lake Kids, a city-wide foundation that runs recreational programming in low-income neighbourhoods.

In better days, Dempsey was a place for Russel Heights youth to play and take part in important community partnerships. Here is an example from two years ago where the Ottawa Police played basketball with Russel Heights youth at Dempsey.

I hope you watch this video and read this article from the Ottawa Citizen – ‘Ball is life:’ How Ottawa police are building relationships through basketball.

The beauty of Dempsey is that kids could walk over from their homes and participate in a wide variety of programming through Christie Lake Kids – all that programming is now gone.

Understandably, Christie Lake Kids has been silent about the loss of one of their key centers for community programming. What can they possibly do? For them at this point to advocate for their youth would risk losing more programming from the City of Ottawa.

This is one of the essential problems with programs based on charity. It is always a handout. We do this because we are in power and we can – but don’t ever challenge us. Don’t ever question our decisions.

The City Councillor Jean Cloutier has defended the move saying all the right people were consulted, no one objected. His level of advocacy for marginalized youth in his own community is a disgrace. When contacted he assured us that he had followed all the requisite steps. His conscience is clear.

These are racialized youth, these are underrepresented families. These are people with no power. This is a racist act made by people who have nothing to fear – no one speaks up for these people. They know they don’t have to worry about decisions that affect people in this neighbourhood.

A few weeks ago there was a huge furor on the local  Ottawa CBC when a backyard youth Shakespeare group was shut down by local by-law officers for making too much noise. We heard about this story every second day. A quick Google search turned up 18 separate articles about this! Through the advocacy of people with power, the troupe was moved to one of the premier theatres in Ottawa to complete their performances.

Good for them but there were some big differences between the troupe and Russell Heights. They came from a well-off mainly white neighbourhood. They got the support of local (CBC) media because it was a ‘good’ story. They had an effective voice. They had real power.

The kids and families have none of these advantages. CBC showed very little interest in the story – who cares about poor neighbourhoods in Ottawa. The press coverage was minimal – again who cares?

Situations like this make me angry. The injustice and overt racism in this story are incredible. This is tragic.

Yes, this is an example of the growing incivility of our times. Should the men’s shelter exist – of course. Did it need to displace fully enrolled children’s programs at Dempsey – of course not.

This is a case of inattention by City staff and a City Councillor who really didn’t care. Why should they? They knew no one in Russel Heights would protest. These people are used to stuff like this, why would they object?

No one sees them.

If people don’t start caring in the times of COVID when will they start caring? Why can’t we be understanding and compassionate for all communities, not just the rich, white ones? Why does no one seem to care?

 

 

How to live in the age of incivility

Like many, I watched the first American debate last night. It was deeply disturbing and it is still resonating today. This is the quote that comes to me this morning.

But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight / Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.
— Bruce Cockburn

For me, it is not an option not to write right now, but I don’t want to focus on the trainwreck that is Donald Trump. I want to write about incivility – much of what is concerning me has gone on for a long time – Trump is just a symptom of a larger problem.

I want to write about this.

I take a risk by doing this. I do not live on some remote island. I work for a local university and I have lots of social contacts. It pains me that I need to be so careful in what I write so as not to ruffle the feathers of people in power. People in power do not think or worry about abusing that power or affecting people who do not share their power or influence.

In the first two cases, I will anchor my post to an article – one on the Dempsey Community Centre here in Ottawa, the second, a great article by David Jefferess a university professor at UBC’s Okanagan campus.

In the third instance, there is no article. My story is hidden mainly because when a person is the victim of incivility and a power imbalance they do not want to talk about these things. The overwhelming emotion that comes from being at the sharp end of a power imbalance is shame. To talk about these situations, even in my case four years after the incident is very hard to do. However, in an age of incivility, you really do need to kick at the darkness.

It is OK to do this. I hope it will do some good somewhere.

Next week, I will start with the loss of the Dempsey Community Centre here in Ottawa.

 

The Importance of Being Civil to Others Part II

Last week my post The Importance of Being Civil to Others was featured on Voice.ed Radio.  A great discussion and thanks to Doug Peterson and Steven Hurley for featuring this post. I think, and they agreed, the discussion needs to go further. In the original post, I mentioned specific situations where we are no longer as civil as we should be, especially in the field of education. I wasn’t writing as much about civility in general society where I agree with Steven, society in Canada is very civil and I appreciate my daily dealings with people.

People can be very civil when you do not upset the status quo when you do civility becomes strained.

I have to admit I like to push the envelope and write about controversial topics like Catholic Education in Ontario and the inability of school boards to bring about significant change. These are topics that need to be written about. At no time do I ever focus on individuals or write in any way that can be seen as disrespectful.

These are topics that seem to bring the knives out.

Several times, mainly on Facebook, I have been called naive and simplistic and people have expressed ‘surprise’ about my posts, especially regarding Catholic Education in Ontario. On Twitter, I have actually been blocked by a member of the senior administration from my former Catholic board.

The blocking might not mean that much, but to me, it is a sign of incivility. Usually, I block the Twitter accounts of trolls and those who do not follow the rules set out by Twitter for inappropriate content.

I never block people who I disagree with, I usually try to engage in positive conversation and if this is not possible, I simply unfollow them. Blocking someone you don’t agree with is cowardly behaviour and I would say lacks civility.

On Facebook, when the conversations threaten to get out of control I simply delete the entire conversation. Sadly, this seems to be the only way to stop people who quickly lose the ability to be polite on-line. The worst offenders tend to be Catholic educators, which I find troubling.

I hope this clarifies my position. Again, thank goodness for my very supportive on-line PLN – all are wonderful and always civil!